Book Forum on German Philanthropic History / New Works in the Field

“Contraband Humanitarianism”: German Charity on the Kenyan Coast

Editors’ Note: Nina Berman wraps up HistPhil‘s book forum on German philanthropic history.

The chapter I wrote for German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective is part of a larger ethnographic project that I conducted over much of the past decade in an Indian Ocean community in Kenya. That study explores material changes and social relations in Diani, an area of about 80,000 inhabitants that has transformed into its current shape over the past fifty years as a result of the development of upscale beach tourism (see my Germans on the Kenyan Coast: Land, Charity, and Romance (2017)). Germans, among other Europeans, played a crucial role in developing this tourism destination; they were also critical to shaping the “culture of charity” that permeates social relations in Diani on many levels. This culture of charity responds to poverty and need, which largely result from the uneven effects of economic development and shifts in landownership in the area.

“Charity” is the word used locally to describe philanthropic activity in Diani, yet the choice of this term betrays the persistence of colonial patterns that mark the relations of philanthropic interactions. Charity was an indispensable component of colonial rule from its beginnings, when Christian missionaries provided moral legitimacy to Spanish and Portuguese “civilizing” endeavors in the New World. Similarly, contemporary philanthropy in the global south—most often termed humanitarianism in that context—is an integral part of global power relations. While for some humanitarianism functions as reparative justice and is an act of solidarity, others engage in or support humanitarianism on the basis of enduring civilizationist and racist beliefs about the ineptness of populations living in the global south. Regardless of the particular impetus, humanitarian aid, particularly to sub-Saharan Africa, has emerged as a prominent form of contemporary philanthropy and has become integral to the self-image of societies of the global north. Critical inquiry has primarily focused on organized forms of humanitarian activity, such as governmental and non-governmental economic and political development and aid programs. However, humanitarianism has cast a much wider net, as it incorporates a vast array of actors, and structures north-south relations at the level of everyday life experiences in a range of diverse scenarios.

The type of humanitarian activity that I discuss in the chapter involves Germans who have decided to pursue philanthropic activities in Diani outside of the more familiar structures of governmental and international non-governmental organizations. Like countless others who are active in Africa, they founded a MONGO (“My Own NGO,” a term I first encountered in The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? by Linda Polman), and set out to improve the lives of Kenyans by drawing on funds primarily raised in Germany. The two initiatives I focus on here differ significantly in terms of their relationship to the Kenyan context: While Ingeborg Langefeld, the owner of a secondary school for girls, lives and operates entirely in Kenya, the representatives of the organization headed by Mr. Müller (the name has been changed) travel to Kenya several times a year to pay out funds to various local initiatives that they monitor from Germany. The activities of Mr. Müller’s organization and Ms. Langefeld’s school contribute to developing important areas of the local infrastructure, such as sanitation, schools, health, and water supply. In many ways, these endeavors seem just as, or even more effective than, systematic governmental or non-governmental aid. However, while Ms. Langefeld’s school successfully provides much needed educational opportunities for girls and is largely integrated into the local fabric, Mr. Müller’s organization—in spite of considerable merits of some of its projects—reproduces some of the detrimental consequences of paternalistic aid. As the organization largely bypasses the Kenyan state and formal economy (hence the term “contraband humanitarianism”) and engages in work that should be at least overseen by the state or another legitimate body, it feeds corruption and graft; undermines local industries through the import of goods that are passed out for free (even in defiance of government bans on, for example, the import of pharmaceuticals); and feeds passivity and inequality through a paternalistic organizational structure.

The larger systemic issues of contemporary contraband charity and other forms of contemporary humanitarianism, including educational initiatives such as the school run by Ms. Langefeld, tie philanthropy in Africa to the recent phase of globalization in intricate ways. German philanthropic activities in Kenya increased around the same time that neoliberal practices were introduced (in the 1980s), practices that impoverished many Kenyans over the past thirty years and widened the gap between rich and poor in the country. In the short run, the present push for globalization, which occurs in Kenya and across the continent as part of a “Second Scramble for Africa,” has not led to the improvement of the livelihoods of average Kenyans. We should be mindful of the ideological and material function of philanthropy in the context of these larger economic and political developments. The roots of German humanitarian impulses in Africa can be tied to the colonial period and to the critique of colonial relations, but also to particular German affinities with indigenous peoples and the critical engagement with the Holocaust. Notwithstanding these ideological genealogies, in the contemporary context of global neoliberalism, and consistent with the longer history of philanthropy, German humanitarian activities generate unintended consequences. While philanthropic activity in general aims to address areas of social inequality and alleviate the suffering that results from it, in many cases, it may ultimately ossify the structures that bring about those social ills. The case of aid to Africa demonstrates this quite clearly; philanthropy that is not accompanied by large-scale economic and political reforms will not address the root causes of, in this case, Kenyan poverty. Political reforms would have to tackle issues of corruption, favoritism, and impunity. Economic reforms need to focus on current debt and currency policies, the agricultural subsidies of Western nations, and tariffs on products from Africa (all of which tilt the economic advantage toward the richer nations), while simultaneously allowing Africa to implement some trade barriers to level the playing field.

Building a school or digging a well in Africa are not innocent activities. While the compassion of philanthropists may be genuine, the reasons for global inequality need to be more widely understood. Otherwise humanitarian aid remains hush money, a band aid for locals while investors continue to plunder the African continent.

-Nina Berman

Nina Berman is Professor of International Letters and Cultures and Director of the School of International Letters and Cultures at Arizona State University. Her work focuses on cross-cultural encounters and the relationship between contemporary neoliberal globalization and the longue durée of colonialism.

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